Cuestión de Feeling, Chayanne
A Little Help From My Friends, Bon Jovi
Real World, Richard Marx
Leave Out All The Rest, Linkin' Park
Lou stood quietly along the corral fence, watching Lightning, Katy and the others cavorting in the growing dusk. There was something about watching the horses just be themselves, completely unfettered, that she found calming. After the last week she needed that feeling so she could think, process through things, figure out exactly what she was thinking.
At first, she didn’t respond to the gruff comment, so in line was it with her own thoughts. Then, when a large hand came to rest on her small shoulder, she realized it had been Teaspoon speaking. She didn’t respond, just nodded, with her chin resting on her arms folded along the top of the corral fence.
“Figgered,” he said, moving to adopt a similar position to hers, leaning against the fence. “You was so quiet at supper I almost feared ya’d gone and lost yer voice like Ike.”
She shrugged. Then added, “Didn’t have much ta say.”
“Losin’ a pa’s never easy. ‘Specially in circumstances like this.”
She thought over her words carefully, afraid to sound too much like a girl with this kindly man who’d already been more of a father to her in the few weeks she’d known him then her own had ever been.
“Shouldn’t be. I’ve hated him fer years. The only thing I should be feelin’ is relieved,” she finally sighed, picking a loose sliver of wood off the top of the fence and tossing it to the ground.
“Don’t matter none. He was still yer Pa.”
Turning her face toward Teaspoon for the first time, her eyes shining brightly with unshed tears, she spat out, “He never acted like it!”
“Didn’t he?” Teaspoon asked gently. “Never?”
Lowering her gaze to her toes, Lou whispered, “Maybe. When I was younger.”
“So, what changed? Why’d ya learn ta hate him?”
“You saw what his men did ta Ike, Teaspoon! Ya really gotta ask?”
“You already hated him by then, son,” he smiled at her. “We could all tell that the first time we heard ya say his name.”
Lou shrugged her shoulders and turned to walk toward the bunkhouse, hoping to escape this painful conversation. When Teaspoon matched steps with her she shoved her hands in her pockets and hunched forward defensively.
“Ya gotta learn ta let go of the hate, son. It ain’t gonna harm him none. He’s dead. But it can sure do a number on you and I’d hate ta see that happen.”
Reaching the edge of the bunkhouse porch, Lou paused and leaned against one of the posts. Looking out into the night, avoiding Teaspoon’s concerned gaze, she thought long and hard. There was so much about her relationship with her… Boggs, she just couldn’t call him Pa… that she couldn’t tell Teaspoon.
“When I was younger, he loved me. He loved Ma. Then…. things changed. I just keep thinkin’… if only. If only I’d been… better.” A better daughter, a more ladylike little girl, a better woman, she thought bitterly. But, no matter how hard she’d tried, she’d never lived up to his ideals of femininity. “I could never please him. By the time I was nine, I gave up tryin’. Maybe if I hadn’t...“
Teaspoon waited a moment for her to finish her thought before pushing her. “Maybe if you hadn’t?”
“Maybe if I hadn’t he wouldn’t’ve done the things he did and we, my brother, sister, Ma and I would still be all livin’ together. A family.”
“Yahoo!” an excited Louise shouted at the top of her lungs as she crossed the improvised finish line first, at least two horse lengths ahead of the man closest on her horse’s tail. She pulled her mount to a skidding halt in front of her Grandpa. “Did ya see, Grandpa? Did ya see? I did exactly like ya said and I won! I won!”
Grandpa McCloud stretched his arms up toward her, a wide grin plastered across his face, “Ya sure did, mavourneen. And right well, at that.”
Louise jumped into his arms, wrapping her own tightly around his neck for a mutually congratulatory hug.
“Ya sure don’t get those ridin’ skills from yer Pa, little Miss,” the first of the young men who worked around the compound said, coming up to congratulate her on her victory. Soon, they were all clustered around her.
Louise stood there and accepted the congratulations with an almost regal air. She nodded and smiled at each of the young men, barely more than boys themselves, in turn.
“What’s goin’ on over here?”
Everyone stiffened and slowly turned to see her Pa standing on the catwalk, glaring over the log wall surrounding the house at the group.
“I don’t pay you men ta stand around gabbing like a bunch a chickens. Get back ta work or pack up and get out!”
Louise’s riding partners quickly scattered to their various posts. The one closest to her, Billy, smiled down surreptitiously at Louise and whispered to her as he scampered off, “Ya ride good, but I’m demandin’ a rematch!”
Soon, it was just Louise and her Grandpa standing there. Louise shivered at the look in her Pa’s eyes. She didn’t think she’d ever seen him this furious before.
“McCloud! I thought I told ya she was only ta ride sidesaddle from now on? In dresses!” He paused to glare pointedly at the old pair of boy’s trousers Louise had belted on for the race. She looked down at them. Ride in a dress? she thought. How was she supposed to ride in a dress? “Get yourself inside this instant, young lady! Get cleaned up and clothe yourself properly!”
Louise ran quickly for the gate. She never once dared glance back at her Pa and Grandpa as she raced across the yard to the front door of the house just as fast as her little legs would move. She could hear the two grown men shouting behind her every step of the way.
“I’ve had it with the way you encourage that girl ta run wild, McCloud! I’m amazed ya ever raised a lady like yer daughter if ya treated her like this!”
“Mebbe that says more ‘bout your parentin’ than mine, laddie.”
“I want you gone!”
“Ye cain’t make me, and ye know it. I’m stayin’ here as long as my poor colleens are here. There’s nothin’ ye can do ta change that.”
Louise let the door slam shut behind her, despite knowing how it would irritate her father. She didn’t want to hear any more of the fight.
“Mary Louise! Get down here this instant!”
Louise jumped skittishly in the tub at the sound, even as her mother dropped the sponge into the water. The girl and woman looked at each other for a moment, fear written in their matching sets of liquid brown eyes.
“It’ll be alright, Louise,” Ma said quietly, trying to be reassuring. She patted the girl’s wet shoulder as she stood up. “You finish cleaning up. I’ll go see what your Pa’s upset about.”
Louise watched her mother leave the room, never moving an inch. As soon as the door closed behind her Ma, Louise sprang into action. She rushed through the rest of her bath and threw on the first dress she pulled out of a closet full of frilly frocks. She never even glanced to see what color it was. Within minutes she was exiting the children’s suite of rooms and crouching behind the banister at the top of the stairs, spying on her parents. They were in the middle of an argument Louise had heard many times before. Only this time, something was different about her father’s tone. If she’d recognized the tone, she’d have called it deadly.
“I want him gone! He can either go on his own two feet, or he can go in a pine box!”
“Lyle!” Ma gasped. “You can’t mean that!” She reached out to grab Pa’s arm in a pleading motion. Pa jerked away from her angrily.
“I can and I do. And you can tell him that. Now, I’ll not have another word about this, woman!”
“Please, Lyle. We need him. Our children need him.”
“I told you, not another word!” Pa roared, pulling back his arm and swinging wildly at Ma. Louise winced at the smacking sound of his fist hitting her face. She stood as Ma fell to the ground, a different ghastly popping sound reaching the girl’s ears when she landed.
“Ma!” she screamed, frantically racing down the stairs to her mother who now lay on the floor, clutching one arm to her, bent at an odd angle. “Ma!”
“I’m alright, Louise,” Ma forced out through gritted teeth.
“Make sure yer all at the dinner table at six sharp,” Pa said quietly, straightening the cuffs of his shirt. “Dressed proper.”
Lou glared up at him, hovering protectively over her mother. He snorted dismissively and turned to walk out the door. “I have work to do. You mind what I said now.”
“Louise, straighten the bow in your hair please,” Ma said quietly from where she sat in a rocker, her injured arm carefully wrapped up and in a sling. Louise quietly nodded and did as she was told. She didn’t want to go to supper with him. She didn’t think she could ever eat again. Not after today.
“Jeremiah!” the nanny scolded. “Don’t run around like that, you’ll get your new suit all dirty.”
“But I wanna play cowboys an’ injuns!” the four year old whined.
“Not now, Jeremiah!” Louise snapped. “Can’t ya see Ma’s hurt? She don’t need yer caterwaulin’ too!”
“Well, ya ain’t gotta be so mean about it, ‘Weeze.”
The clock in the hall began to toll the hour. Louise stopped speaking and began counting. One, two, three, four, five, six. Time to go to supper.
Ma stood up from her chair and winced as she took off the sling that had been supporting her injured arm. “Come along, children. It’s time to go down.”
As they were slowly trooping down the stairs, Ma, followed by Louise holding Jeremiah’s hand, the nanny in the rear carrying baby Teresa, a sudden commotion on the front porch caught their attention.
“Come quick! There’s been an accident! Mr. McCloud’s been thrown!”
Louise recognized Billy’s voice. She dropped Jeremiah’s hand and rushed past Ma and out the front door. Billy grabbed her by the arm and swung her around to hide her head in his chest. “Ya shouldn’t see this, young Miss.”
But it was too late. She’d already seen her grandfather’s bloodied body lying on the ground near the corrals. And, she knew. She knew he was dead and that it was no accident.
“Maybe if I’d been better, he wouldn’t’ve done it,” she muttered, kicking at a stray stone near her feet.
“Son, there’s only one thing ya cain’t save a person from and that’s themselves. But, now he’s gone, it’s time ta think ‘bout the good things he done in yer life. And I know there’s gotta be some, so don’t go tellin’ me there ain’t. Do it fer yerself, not him.”
With another pat on her shoulder, Teaspoon sighed and headed for his bed in the tackroom. Lou watched him walk away for a moment before turning and heading for her own bunk in the bunkhouse. She still had a lot to think about, but talking things over with Teaspoon had helped.
“Hey, Lou, let me get that feed bag fer ya,” Cody yelled across the yard. Lou sighed quietly and ignored him, continuing on her way to the barn with the feedbag she’d tossed over her shoulder.
“Here, I’ll take that,” Buck said, grabbing the bag off her shoulder as soon as she entered the barn, before she could say anything. He’d already turned around and headed for the feed room so he never noticed the glare she sent after him.
Kid jogged up to match strides with her as she angrily marched out of the barn, muttering to herself.
“Lou, wanna go fishin’ with me this afternoon? Ike said he’d take over the rest of yer chores for ya.”
“I don’t need Cody carryin’ nothin’ fer me, Buck finishing stuff or Ike takin’ over my chores,” Lou hissed at him. “I kin do my own danged job! Just like always!”
She continued stomping off, leaving a flustered Kid to stare after her. It had been the same story for the last couple of weeks, ever since the boys had learned her real name, and everything else. It was nice they let her have first access to the outhouse in the mornings, now. And, they all now stood guard while she was bathing, protecting her from Emma and Teaspoon. But, it was the other things that were starting to really bug her, not to mention endanger her secret.
Just this morning, Kid had talked Jimmy into letting Lou sleep in cause she’d had a long run the day before and taking her run out to Harper’s Ridge. It was an easy run and she’d been looking forward to it. Even if she hadn’t, it was her run, by God!
Last week, when Teaspoon was assigning chores and told Lou to re-shoe Lightning, Ike had gallantly offered to do it for her. He’d offered right in front of everyone, with no excuses or reasons.
And today in town, they hadn’t wanted to let her load anything onto the buckboard, constantly taking items out of her hands as soon as she’d picked them up. Not to mention the other day when the whole lot of them had ganged up on her, not letting her take part in breaking the new ponies.
Only Jimmy had stayed out of it. Oh, he treated her differently, but not like the other boys. Not in a way that endangered her secret. He’d just started flirting with her, at least she thought that’s what it was, every time Emma and Teaspoon had their backs turned. She was actually kind of enjoying that. The thought brought a small smile to her mouth. Jimmy had a knack for making her laugh and forgetting her troubles.
Lou flopped down onto the bunkhouse porch to contemplate her problems. Just then, the door behind her opened and, a moment later, a torn shirt fluttered down into her lap.
“Lou, could ya do me a huge favor and mend this? It’s my favorite shirt and I tore it on a nail in the bunkhouse.”
“That does it!” she gritted through her teeth, outraged. She stood, tossed the shirt in Cody’s surprised face and disappeared into the bunkhouse. She exited a scant moment later, her gunbelt on, tying the strap that held her pistol to her leg tight around her thigh. Stretching to her full 5’2” of height, she swiped a leg behind Cody’s knees, knocking him down to her level, pulled the revolver out of the holster and pointed it at him as she grabbed him by the ear.
“Let’s go! I got somethin’ ta say ta ya. All of ya!”
Ignoring Cody’s gasped questions, she pulled him toward the barn where the rest were finishing up the afternoon chores. The chores they’d essentially chased her away from. In her hurry, she had Cody folded nearly in half in an effort to keep from losing his ear.
Lou, would ya let go already! I’ll come peaceably, I promise,” he whined.
“Nope. If it hurts, to danged bad. Ya deserve it.” This came just as she banged her way through the main doors of the barn. Pointing her pistol into the air she fired once. “Come on out, wherever y’all are! I got a few things ta say ta ya!”
“Lou!” Kid was the first to skid into the aisle from Katy’s stall. “What’s wrong? “
*Are we being attacked?* Ike signed.
“Well, looks like Lou’s on the warpath,” Buck joked as he joined his brothers. “Lou, you takin’ ears instead of scalps?”
“I just might,” she ground out. “It ain’t like y’all are usin’ ‘em fer anythin’ other than holding yer hair off’n yer faces!”
“Ah, Lou, what’s wrong?” Kid asked, perplexed.
“What’s wrong? How about everythin’ y’all are doin’ ta expose me?”
“What are you talkin’ ‘bout Lou,” Cody piped up from his painfully crouched position at her side. “We’re keepin’ yer secret.”
"Is that what you’ve been doin’? Sure don’t look like it from my perspective. Looks like yer tryin’ ta give me away without sayin’ a word. That’s tellin’ in my book.”
Catching on to what she was talking about, Buck tried to defend the riders from her wrath. “Lou, we know you’ve had a hard life. We’re just tryin’ ta make it a little easier, is all.”
“Did I ever ask y’all ta ‘make things easiser’ on me?” She glared around at the lot standing there with hangdog expressions. When no one answered, she prodded, “Well, did I?”
“No,” Kid said quietly. “I guess you didn’t.”
“That’s right. The only thing I asked was to be allowed to do my job. Just like all you all! All of my job!” She was so angry she couldn’t help but stamp a foot in emphasis. She flinched back from the bright shaft of light that suddenly speared through the barn’s gloom.
“Any of you goin’ ta take the mochila?” Jimmy asked.
“Yeah! I am!” Lou suddenly let go of Cody’s ear, causing him to fall to his knees moaning in relief and rubbing at the offended appendage. Rushing over to Jimmy she grabbed the mochila from him and headed for the barn doors without a backward glance.
Scanning his brothers, Jimmy asked, “Uh, Lou, what’s goin’ on?”
“Nothin’,” she tossed over her shoulder. “Just discussing how to do our jobs right.”
She paused by the door to glare back at the others. “If any of ‘em try ta follow me, Jimmy, shoot ‘em! In the buttocks!”
Rushing out the door she ran over to Buck’s saddled horse and flung herself onto its back, digging her heels into its sides to startle it into a gallop. Behind her she could hear Jimmy asking the others, “What did you to do piss him off?”
“We was nice ta… him,” Cody whined.
Had she been too hard on them, Lou wondered. No, she decided. She’d tried being nice, but it hadn’t worked. It took a little violence to get through to those boys. She allowed herself a small smile. In some ways the attention had been nice. She wouldn’t have minded the extra attention if it hadn’t come with the assumption she couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be doing her job. That she couldn’t take. She’d proved herself, dadgummit, and she planned to keep on proving herself, to herself and the rest of the world. No one would ever tell her she wasn’t good enough to do what she’d chosen to do. Not ever again.
With these thoughts circling around and around in her head, she rode off into the western sun, pushing her horse to ever faster speeds.
Lou breathed deeply as she urged her latest mount to keep up his gallop for the last mile to the next home station. This run was almost over and she was looking forward to catching some down time. And here, she wouldn’t have to worry about the others almost giving her away with their actions.
Pounding into the yard, she bent low over her horse’s neck, grabbing the mochila in one hand,ready to hold it out for the next rider to grab. Within moments the handoff was over and she was pulling her horse to a stop.
“Whoa! Whoa, boy,” she called to the animal as it snorted and shook its head.
The stationmaster, a man half Teaspoon’s age and twice his girth, waddled up and grabbed the reins near the bit to hold the horse still as she slid off the saddle to the ground.
“McCloud,” he greeted. “We was expectin’ the Injun. What happened?”
“Buck,” she said, putting a slight emphasis on his name, “agreed to switch runs with me. I needed some time off later this week,” she added, lying through her teeth.
The stationmaster sighed and shook his head, muttering, “Don’t know why Teaspoon even bothers ta make out a schedule, the way y’all keep switchin’ up runs.”
Looking up he noticed she was still standing there, waiting for orders. “Well, go on inside and get some grub. Ain’t nothin’ more ta be done tonight. Ya can take Tom’s bunk fer the night. Be ready ta help out with the mornin’ chores, though.”
Lou nodded and headed inside with a grimace. None of the other home stations, that she’d been to at least, would have ever stood up to Emma’s standards, or hers. But that was the price she paid for doing her job. And any of the stations’ bunks was better than the horse stalls and sundry other places she used to lay her head.
Pulling her hat off as she walked tiredly into the bunkhouse, Lou slapped it against her thigh to relieve both hat and pants of some of the dust accumulated during her run. Pausing, she bent over a bucket of water on a bench by the door and sluiced the cool liquid over her face and through her hair. Drying head, face and hands on the limp towel hanging on a nail near the bucket, she turned around in search of food.
“Hey,” she said in greeting to the three boys seated around the table as she slid onto the bench nearest the pot of stew.
“What’s up, Lou?” Zeb asked, even as he shoveled another spoonful of stew into his mouth. Lou smothered a grimace at the sight of the half chewed food in his gaping mouth. Emma would never let them get away with that, she thought.
“Not much,” she said, spooning up her own portion of the supper and grabbing a biscuit to go with it. Hmm, she thought, felt more like Teaspoon’s than Emma’s. Oh well, she shrugged. It’d work just as well to sop up the excess liquid from the stew. “A whole lot of sky and prairie and hours in the saddle.”
On the other end of the bench, Jud and Abner were furiously whispering something and repeatedly taking turns jabbing each other in the ribs. Lou decided to just ignore them.
“Lou, you got a sweetheart?” Jud asked as she shoved the last bit of biscuit sopped in stew into her mouth. She almost choked on the mouthful as she raised her eyes to meet three expectant gazes.
“No,” she said shortly, looking back down at her plate. “No time. Too busy doin’ my job.”
“Tol’ ya,” she heard Abner stage whisper to Jud. “Ain’t nobody too busy ta get a girl. Not if’n he’s a mind to.”
Lou decided to ignore the byplay and head to bed.
“Night, boys,” she said, crawling into the bunk without removing any of her clothes. While she was comfortable sleeping in her longjohns at home now, she wasn’t comfortable with the thought of what she might run into in Tom’s abandoned bunk. In fact she shuddered to think about it. Pulling her hat down over her face, she quickly drifted off to sleep to the sounds of Jud, Abner and Zeb playing poker.
The next morning, Lou awoke to a cold shower. Sitting up sputtering she had her pistol pulled, cocked and aimed before her eyes were fully awake.
“What the hell do you think yer doin’?” she demanded, facing down a suddenly worried Jud.
“Mr. Putnam tol’.. tol’.. tol’ me ta wake ya up fer… fer… fer mornin’ chores,” he stuttered, backing away slowly.
“Somehow I don’t think he instructed you to give me a bath in the process,” she hissed at him through clenched teeth, struggling to keep her coat closed over her now soaked shirt. Uncocking the pistol, she reholstered it and clambered out of the bunk. She didn’t even try to resist the urge to smack the impertinent youth upside the head as she passed by him to her bedroll to dig out dry clothes.
Shivering and muttering angrily to herself she stomped to the outhouse to take care of her morning needs and change shirts and bindings. As she exited the lean-to and headed for the barn she heard Jud and Abner whispering furiously around the side of the bunkhouse.
“He reacted jus’ like ya said he would,” Jud said. “Pulled his gun, jus’ like Hickok, then scurried off ta the outhouse ta change in private.”
“I tol’ ya he’s a little gal boy,” Abner said. “That’s the last proof I need. Once he’s gone, I’m tellin’ Mr. Putnam I ain’t sharin’ no bunkhouse with that nancy.”
Lou sighed, then shrugged. There wasn’t much she could do about what they thought, and as long as they only thought she was a ‘gal-boy’ she could live with it. It wasn’t like Teaspoon would fire her over that.
Lou pulled up back at the Sweetwater home station to find all five of the other boys lined up along the corral fence. She looked at them suspiciously, but relaxed when none of them made a move toward her. She slid off her horse with a smile and began leading it toward the barn to cool it down and feed it. She was looking forward to one of Emma’s delicious dinners.
Moments later, she heard Buck come up behind her. She could tell by the sound of his feet swooshing through the hay. No one walked quite like him. She stiffened as he approached her.
“Don’t worry,” he said, a smile in his quiet voice. “I’m not going ta offer ta do any of yer work.”
With a nod, she resumed her vigorous brushing of the horse she’d ridden in on.
“The boys sent me ta say we’re sorry,” he continued, speaking to her back. “You were right. We were ‘bout ta give ya away.”
She turned around and opened her mouth to give him a piece of her mind, but Buck held up a hand to forestall her. “No, not deliberately. But it wouldn’t’ve mattered in the long run. Results woulda been the same.”
She relaxed at this and turned with a muttered, “Good,” to grab a couple flakes of hay to lay in the feed trough along with the special mix of oats and corn Teaspoon insisted they feed the horses after a run. She could hear Buck’s quiet footsteps as he followed her into the feedroom and back to the stall.
“We’ve all been thinkin’ ‘bout how we can make it up to ya,” he finally said.
Finished putting the horse away, Lou had grabbed her bedroll and hat. But Buck’s last words stopped her in her tracks. Turning back to face him she asked, “And? What did ya come up with?”
“Don’t know ‘bout the others,” he said. “But I thought maybe ya might like a few fightin’ tips. There’s some tricks I could teach ya that’d make ya a better fighter despite yer small size.”
A grin blossomed on her face at that. “Really? You’d teach me how ta fight?”
“What about trackin’?” she asked.
“If ya like,” he said. “But not sure how much I can teach ya now. We start learnin’ as little children. But I’ll teach ya what I can.”
Holding her hand out to him, Lou accepted. “Agreed, then.”
Smiling, he took her hand and shook it seriously. Together they turned and walked toward the bunkhouse. He never even offered to carry her bedroll for her.
Over the next few days, each of the boys came and made their own offers of apology. Ike offered to personally deliver letters to Jeremiah and Teresa on his next run East. Cody kindly offered to let Lou do his chores to make up for trying to do hers. Hickok even offered to help her improve her shooting. She was competent, at best. Only Kid hadn’t been around to apologize yet. Lou was starting to get a mite peeved about that.
“Mind if I join you,” Kid asked. Lou ignored him and kept vigorously raking out the straw and manure on the floor of Lightning’s stall. He sighed. “I know yer mad at me.”
“There’s a surprise,” she muttered. “Ya noticed how I feel!”
“Lou, don’t be that way,” he pled. “I always notice how you feel. I’ve just been tryin’ ta respect yer wishes and not give ya away. And ya know Teaspoon sent me off on that three-day run. I couldn’t exactly apologize from Fort Kearney!”
Lou stopped her furious raking and hung her head.
“I know,” she finally whispered.
“Anyway,” he continued, now that he was sure he had her attention, “if ya wouldn’t mind me watchin’ ya finish yer chores. Then, since we’ve got the afternoon off, it bein’ Sunday and all, maybe we could go fishin’.”
“Fishin’?” she asked, raising her eyes finally to meet his. “Ya want ta take me fishin’?”
“Sure,” he said. “Unless ya don’t like fishin’.”
“Cain’t rightly say if I do or not,” she admitted. “I’ve never been. But I’d love ta give it a try!”
“Then, I’ll see ‘bout fixin’ us up a couple poles while ya finish yer chores,” he smiled at her. She shyly smiled back.
A half hour later, the duo walked down the path, each with a fishing pole in one hand and a bucket in the other. Kid carried a bucket of nightcrawlers, Lou a bucket of Emma’s cornbread to snack on.
Down at the watering hole, Kid showed her how to find a nice shady spot with deep water. Then, he pulled out a hook he’d specially carved for her.
“So, I just toss that in the water?”
Kid laughed. “No, ya gotta put the bait on it.”
“Ya mean them worms ya dug outta the manure pile?”
“Yep. Ya gotta snag one on the hook. It’s squirmin’ will get the fish’s attention and before ya know it you’ll have a bite.”
“Before I know it, hunh?”
“Well….” Kid let the thought hang in mid-air.
“Alright, so hand over this worm.”
“Ya sure?” Kid asked. “I could…”
“Don’t say it!” she glared at him.
“Sorry,” he smiled. “Old habits die hard.”
“Then maybe ya oughta think ‘bout puttin’ ‘em outta both our misery,” she joked. “Yer good ‘nough with that six-shooter of yers.”
“I hear yer gettin’ pretty good yerself,” he complimented, handing her the worm. “Jimmy’s been braggin’ ‘bout how much yer improvin’.”
Lou ducked her head and blushed at the compliment as she snagged the worm on the hook and tossed the lot into the pond.
They sat for a long time in companionable silence, enjoying the spring sunshine and the opportunity to not be working or rushing around for a change.
Eventually Kid asked, “So, how’re the runs goin’? Any problems at the other stations?”
“Naw,” she said quietly, half asleep. “Oh, couple of the boys at the other stations have figgered somethin’s different ‘bout me, but they ain’t quite got it right.”
Kid looked at her as she giggled quietly to herself. Finally he couldn’t restrain his curiosity. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, they’ve figured I ain’t like the rest o’ y’all, but they think it’s just ‘cause I’m a nancy, not ‘cause I’m a girl.”
Kid looked at Lou, perplexed. Lou just laughed.
“A nancy. Ya know. A gal boy. A boy that likes other boys, ‘stead of girls.”
Slowly comprehension dawned and Kid blushed a bright red. “Ain’t ya ‘fraid of that gettin’ ya fired?”
“No need. They might complain ta their stationmasters, but they all report ta Teaspoon and he ain’t gonna fire me over some rumors,” she laughed. “Especially not rumors like that.”
Lou turned the conversation around on Kid. “What was Fort Kearney like? I hear it’s really rough, out there.”
They spent the rest of the afternoon talking about everything and nothing. It was the best afternoon Lou had had in a long time. By the end she’d completely forgiven Kid. But he had one more thing he felt he needed to apologize for, even though he’d already done so once.
“Lou,” he started hesitantly.
“Out with it, Kid,” she smiled encouragingly. “I left my gun back at the station, so ya ain’t got nothin’ ta fear.”
“Lou, I know ya’ve been strugglin’ with losin’ yer Pa and I feel,” he paused again. “Well, I feel real responsible for what happened. I didn’t want ta kill him.”
Lou reached out and grabbed Kid’s hand in hers. “Kid, he stopped bein’ my Pa the day he beat my Ma and killed my Grandpa McCloud. You just shot some gunrunner who’d kidnapped my brother and sister.”
Kid nodded thoughtfully and squeezed his fingers around hers. They both sat on the bank of the pond, looking out over the water, thinking.
Lou had been away from the home station for most of the last week on what should’ve been a one day run but had turned into multiple runs up and down the line, as she’d filled in for Jud who’d suddenly upped and quit, with no warning. She was so glad to be home again.
The few weeks before that had been busy, what with the business of first the escaped slave, Ulysses, and the Missouri Militia trying to run roughshod over them, then that author setting up Jimmy for a fall. But lately, things seemed to have settled down.
Riding into the yard, she happily passed the mochila to Bob, one of the Harpers’ Ridge riders. Ike was standing on the bunkhouse porch, his saddled horse tied to one of the posts.
“Hey, Ike!” Lou greeted, wearily.
*Good ride?* he signed.
“It was alright,” she sighed. “Seemed extra long after the last week.”
She slipped down off her horse slowly, even as Ike reached out to grab the reins.
“Where’s everybody else?” she asked, curiously, as he walked with her toward the barn.
*Emma’s out sparking with Sam,* Ike responded. *And the others are in town with Teaspoon, getting supplies. They should be back soon.*
“You’ve got the next eastbound run, I take it?” Ike nodded. “Well, let ‘em know they’re a little shorthanded out at the Guilford Station. That’s why I spent so long out there, fillin’ in.”
*Heard they had a couple riders quit with no warning.*
Lou shrugged. At the sound of approaching hooves she turned toward the west.
“Rider comin’!” she automatically yelled out. Ike nodded his head and sprinted for his horse. “Ride safe, Ike!” she yelled after him.
“Wooo!” Cody hollered as he pulled his horse to a stop near Lou. “’Bout time ya got back. We was ‘bout ready ta parcel out yer things.”
Lou just laughed at his antics.
Lou and Cody worked quickly to cool off their horses and feed them. Lou finished first, by moments, and was leading the way out of the barn when they heard the sound of riders returning.
“Wonder if that’s Teaspoon and the boys or Emma and Sam?” Cody asked, coming up behind her in the barn door.
“Too many horses ta be Emma and Sam,” Lou shrugged. “Less they ran inta trouble.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Cody said. “And if they did, we’ll probably end up ridin’ out with him, again.”
“Ya know ya love it, so stop yer complainin’,” Lou smiled up at the blonde youth. “’Sides, that’s Katy and Kid. I’d recognize them anywhere.”
“You would,” Cody muttered, looking down at her with an odd light in his eyes. A light she completely missed as she hurried out to greet the incoming riders. “You would.”
Standing in the middle of the station yard, Lou’s expression turned puzzled as she started counting the horses and realized there was an extra one she didn’t recognize.
“Cody,” she called. “Did we get any new horses or riders while I was gone?”
“Looks like we got company,” she answered pointing out the incoming stranger. “Wonder who he is?”
Kid came skidding to a halt in front of Lou and Cody, the newcomer right on his heels. “Lou, Cody,” Kid grinned at them. “I’d like y’all ta meet my big brother. Jed!”
Lou looked at him in shock. In all their talks, he’d never even mentioned having a brother. Of course, he’d barely spoken about his family at all. The only family member he’d ever mentioned was his Ma.
While Lou was trying to process her shock, Cody had already jumped in. Holding out his hand, he said, “Mighty nice ta meet ya!”
Jed smiled back. “You, too, young man. Looks like my kid brother’s found himself quite a home out here!” He turned to Lou and held out his hand in a friendly gesture. She mentally shook herself and responded to the gesture.
“Nice ta meet ya,” she said in her gruffest voice, ducking her chin as she shook his hand. Stepping back she pulled her hat low over her eyes and crossed her arms defensively over her chest. But she never took her eyes off Kid and his brother Jed.
“Is Emma back yet?” Kid asked. “I want ta let her know I invited Jed ta stay fer supper.”
“Nope,” Cody smiled. “She’s still out sparkin’ with the Marshal.”
Lou watched the interplay between Kid and Jed at the supper table. It was easy to tell Kid loved his brother with near adoration. She was glad he’d shown up. She’d never seen Kid so relaxed, or talkative. Except maybe when it was just the two of them out on a run. She smiled, even as she looked down at her plate. Then, something Jed was saying caught her attention.
“Been all over this country.”
Lou looked up, even as Emma asked, “Ever been ta New York City?”
Lou glanced back and forth across the table. She was dying to hear the answer. She’d always wanted to visit a big city. It would be so easy to disappear in a big city. Why she’d heard more than half a million people had lived there at the last census. She couldn’t imagine so many people living in one place. New Orleans, the largest city she’d ever been to, even if it had been for less than a day, had housed only 116,000 people in 1850.
“Yes, ma’am,” Jed smiled.
“What’s it like?” Cody beat Lou to the question she was dying to ask.
Forgetting to keep her voice deep, Lou eagerly added, “Is it as grand as folks say?”
With an odd glance her direction, Jed answered. “Oh, it’s better. They got streetcars, take ya any place ya like, gas lamps on every corner and buildings, biggest buildings I ever saw.”
Everyone in the room was hanging on Jed’s description of a place they’d all heard about but none had ever seen, except perhaps Teaspoon, who claimed to have been anywhere and everywhere. Jed continued his story.
“Why I stood on the roof of one that was over eighty feet high.” Lou couldn’t help laughing at that. She simply couldn’t imagine a building so tall. “You could see for thirty miles in any direction.”
This impressed even Teaspoon. “Damn,” he muttered quietly.
“They got a machine that’ll lift ya all the way to the top,” Jed continued, never noticing the interruption. “You just step in and, bpppt, up ya go.”
“Ha, ha!” Cody laughed the loudest in awe. “That’s where I’m goin’ someday. Mark my words. New York, Philadelphia, all them big cities.”
Lou smiled down at her plate. She had no doubt Cody would make good on his dreams someday. There was just something about him that was bigger than life. And without the grim strings of a dark destiny that seemed to cling to Jimmy. She just hoped she’d get to see a big city herself, someday.
“Tell us about yer family, Jed,” Emma said. “Kid never talks about it.” This was the question Lou most wanted answered but was most afraid to ask. When Kid didn’t talk about something, there was usually a pretty good reason for it.
“Kid never talks about anything,” Cody added.
“Billy thinks if ya ain’t talkin’, ya ain’t alive,” Jimmy, who’d been just quietly listening and enjoying the stories, had to put in.
The questions had caused the beaming smile Kid had been sporting all afternoon to vanish from his face. Lou wanted to kick the shins of everyone for bringing up the topic, but knew she couldn’t. Not with Jed at the table.
“Never mentioned it, ‘cause there was nothin’ ta tell,” Kid said, almost defensively, looking down at the food on his plate. “Father was a sharecropper back in Virginia, that’s all.”
Lou couldn’t help herself. When it was obvious Kid wasn’t going to say more without prodding, she had to ask, “How’d you get separated?”
“Our Pa ran a…” Jed started to say, when Kid interrupted him. Lou noticed how his story was obviously a little different from the one Jed had been about to tell.
“There was a drought. He was driven off the farm. He couldn’t find work. We were taken in by different families.”
The information about their brother’s family quieted the joy they’d all been taking in Jed’s stories.
“It’s been almost ten years,” Jed said into the sudden quiet. He looked over at the Kid, seated at his side. “Never thought I’d see him again!”
They all raised their glasses to join in the toast, even as Emma added, “Hear, hear!”
“Amen,” Lou added quietly. She already knew she'd do anything to keep this new family together. Forever.
“Kid,” Lou called.
“In here,” he said.
She shouldered her way into the barn to find him in Katy’s stall.
“Why doesn’t it surprise me I find you in here?” she smiled.
He shrugged and sat down on a nearby hay bale. “Just doin’ some thinkin’, is all.”
“About my family.”
“I.. I wanted to apologize fer that, earlier,” she said. “I shouldn’t’ve asked questions like that. It was obvious you didn’t want ta talk ‘bout it. I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright,” he smiled up at her. “I s’pose it’s time ya started learnin’ more about my family. I already know all ‘bout yer past by now.”
Lou squirmed uncomfortably, knowing she had yet to tell him the biggest secret in her past. Not sure, yet, if she ever could. Turning the subject of conversation, she asked, “Jed seems like a real nice fella. How long’s he in town for?”
“Few days,” Kid said. “He’s here on Army business. Soon’s that’s taken care of, he’ll have ta report ta his next assignment.”
“I bet Teaspoon’ll give ya some time off ta spend with him while he’s here,” she offered encouragingly.
Kid nodded. “He’s givin’ us all some time off tomorrow. Jed’s takin’ us out ta celebrate.”
“Really? Where? How?” she asked curiously.
“Don’t rightly know, but knowing Jed, it’ll be worth the trip!”
Lou stared over the batwing doors along with the other boys, but knew she was not feeling the same things they were. The Silver Spurs Saloon was the last place she wanted to be. It wasn’t the drinking or the gambling or the music she objected to. It was the other stuff that went on here, in the upper rooms. She thought she’d left all that behind her when she’d fled Missouri and him.
Following Jed and Kid inside, Lou looked around, almost desperate to find a reason to leave immediately. But nothing came to her. She clung close to Kid’s side, almost grabbing his arm to avoid both the men and the women who were raising such a ruckus inside.
“Welcome ta the Silver Spurs, boys,” Jed said, voice raised to be heard over the music and shouting. “Home of the smoothest whiskey, the luckiest cards and the prettiest women.”
Lou looked at first Kid, then the other boys, then Jed, in disbelief. These men, who’d all been so decent to her, actually seemed to be enjoying their surroundings. She couldn’t understand it. She was totally baffled.
“I thought we were goin’ ta eat,” she asked almost angrily, half desperately.
With an odd look down at her, Jed leaned over to say, “Personally, I like my dessert, first.” Standing up he raised his voice to speak to the entire group. “Make yerselves at home, boys!”
Lou grimaced in distaste as she looked around her, not noticing that the others had wandered off. Soon, only Kid stood at her side. Then, a group of laughing cowboys and saloon gals pushed between them, laughing raucously. Lou hunched her shoulders defensively against the unwanted contact. Then, looked up almost desperately. Where were they? Where was Kid?
Just as she was about to panic, a hand grabbed her arm. She swung around, ready to use the heel of her palm to push her attacker’s nose into his brains just like Buck had taught her. Kid held up a hand defensively to catch her upthrust palm.
“It’s just me, Lou,” he said quietly. “What say we find someplace quiet and get a drink, ‘til the others are ready ta leave.”
Lou nodded, relieved, though she wouldn’t be able to relax until they were out of there. She would never, never feel comfortable in a place like this.
But, even as they were searching out a table to find a seat, a couple of the saloon gals came up to them, one on each side. Lou once again hunched defensively away from the unwanted touch, scooting closer to Kid.
“Evenin’ boys,” the girls chorused.
Lou looked down at the floor, struggling not to hyperventilate as the blonde grabbed her arm. The smell of her perfume began to bring back memories Lou’d tried hard to suppress until they were completely forgotten!
“Oh, Lord!” she muttered.
“Looks like we got a couple a young’uns here,” the blond hanging on to Lou said.
The brunette wrapping her arms around Kid’s neck added, “Your brother said ta show you a good time, but…”
Lou could see Kid straining his neck to find his brother, whether to thank him or strangle him, she wasn’t sure. She knew what she wanted to do though, she fumed!
“Law says we got ta throw back the small ones in the creek,” the blonde finished the joke. The brunette hid her face in Kid’s shoulder for a moment as she laughed.
“Alright, maybe next year, then,” Kid started to say, trying to move away from the two tarts.
The blonde swung from one side of Lou to the other, separating her from Kid. “But I think I’ll make an exception for you, sugar.”
“Yer wastin’ yer time,” Kid said, pulling away from the brunette. He leaned over and whispered something in the blonde’s ear. Lou felt the woman stiffen and pull away from her. Lou began to breathe a little easier now that the woman wasn’t suffocating her with her perfume anymore.
“Lou,” Kid said, grabbing her elbow and steering her away from the two women who were now whispering furiously to one another.
Suddenly, Lou became suspicious. She turned into Kid and grabbed him by the shirt front. “What’d you tell her?”
Kid smiled, and answered lighly, “Tol’ her you fancied men.”
“What?” she gritted out, reaching for her revolver, ready to shoot him.
“Well, it’s true, ain’t it?” he asked, still smiling, as he pushed past her. She was so poleaxed by his announcement she didn’t stop him. Though, after thinking it over a moment, she could see the humor in his announcement. He’d told no lies. But had achieved the desired effect.
Turning back to the ladies of the night, still whispering to each other, Lou smiled softly and tipped her hat, before taking off after Kid. She wondered if he realized he’d painted himself with the same brush as her, when he’d made that announcement and then left with her. It was almost enough to make a girl giggle.
She followed Kid over to a table near the back of the saloon, hidden under the balcony from upstairs. Here, the noise was less troublesome and she didn’t have to deal with the sights and sounds of all those working girls.
“Thank you,” she mouthed quietly to him as they seated themselves. He shrugged and looked down, avoiding her gaze. But, she could see his neck turning red around his collar. She thought it was cute he was blushing over this whole thing.
“Little brother, what ya doin’ hidin’ back here?” Jed asked, coming up to the table, followed by the other boys.
“Just tryin’ ta get a little breathin’ room,” Kid said with a smile. “Whatcha drinkin’?”
The question distracted Jed, who offered some to Kid. “The house’s finest whiskey.”
Soon, they were all seated around the table, tossing back shots of whiskey, playing poker, and, at least some of them, trying to grab peeks at the saloon girls. After awhile, first Cody, then Ike and Hickok disappeared from the table. All claimed to need a run to the necessary. But they never came back. Lou had a pretty good idea what they were up to, and it sickened her.
“Lou,” Kid said, nudging her shoulder. “I need ta head out back, ya comin’?”
Lou noticed Jed frowning at the strange question, but was grateful to the Kid for thinking of her. She desperately needed to unload some of the beer and whiskey she’d downed. But, given the number of drunks, she never would’ve felt comfortable heading to the outhouse alone. She nodded and quickly stood to follow Kid toward the back door of the saloon which led to an alley with an outhouse in it.
“Much better,” she mumbled as she exited the lean-to still buttoning up her vest. In her inebriated state she didn’t notice the rut in the alley and tripped. Falling forward, she automatically reached out, grabbing onto Kid’s arm and bringing him down with her. Next thing she knew, she was lying on top of the kid in the middle of the alley.
He stared up at her a moment, then reached up with both hands to cup her face.
“You’re so pretty, Lou,” he slurred before bringing her lips down to meet his. He tasted of whiskey and beer. But that didn’t turn her off as she might have thought it would. The feel of his mouth moving softly over hers, his arms holding her tightly to him, was indescribable. It made her insides melt. She wanted this moment to never end.
“Ahem,” a soft voice interrupted their moment.
Lou looked up to see the blonde saloon girl from earlier looking down at them from the back porch.
“You two might want to find someplace a mite more…. ah… private,” she advised.
Lou gulped in mortification. The jig was up. She’d lose her job for sure, now. The blonde would tell Jed, who’d tell Teaspoon and that’d be all she wrote. She scrambled off Kid, never even saying a word to him before disappearing back into the saloon in a vain attempt to keep the prostitute from recognizing her.
“Lou!” Kid called out as she ran off. But she couldn’t stop. She couldn’t take the risk of getting caught, no matter how he made her feel.
Unfortunately, luck was not on her side. Moments later, as she came rushing back into the saloon, she ran straight into the woman she was trying to avoid.
“You and me need ta have a little talk, young man,” the blonde said, grabbing Lou’s arm and dragging her toward the stairs. Lou started to struggle, but the woman added, “Now hush up. All we’re gonna do is talk. Less’n ya wanna have this talk down here where anyone can hear it!”
This quieted Lou and she reluctantly followed the blonde up the stairs to her room. Closing the door behind her, the blonde pointed to a chair next to a bureau with a mirror on it. “Have a seat.”
Lou mutely sat and waited.
“I know lots a folks don’t hold with the way you feel, young man,” she began. Lou started to say something, anything, but the woman held up a hand to stop her. “No, hear me out. I know lotsa folks would call you a sinner for the way you feel about your feller. But, lots of folks look down on me for what I do. Never mind it’s the only way I have to support my Ma, Pa and brothers and sisters.”
The woman started pacing back and forth. “You? You got a chance at love. Real love. I can tell by the way your gentleman looks at ya. It’s somethin’ special. But if you keep runnin’ away like ya did tonight, he may give up on ya.”
The woman sighed. “Now, a broken heart ain’t never killed no one. But, why suffer it when ya can have it all? All you’ve got ta do is accept who ya are, who ya love and get on with it. Stop runnin’ or someday yer gonna find ya ran yer way right through life.”
She walked over and patted Lou on the shoulder. “I know love can be kind of scary. I had me a real love oncet. But he got killed. Then my Pa was injured in a farm accident. I had ta go out and get a job. This was the only way I could earn enough money ta keep the rest of the family on the farm. So, I do it. But I wouldn’t be able to if I hadn’t had the courage to accept love when it did come my way. Now, the memory of that love keeps me goin’, even in the bad times.”
She pulled at Lou’s arm and pushed her toward the door. “Now, you go find yer young man, apologize for being scared and runnin’ away and learn just what love can do fer ya. Go on!”
Lou, still half drunk, almost tripped over her own feet heading toward the door. Halfway out of it, she paused to look back at the woman who was tenderly fingering a photo in the locket around her neck.
“Thanks,” she whispered quietly before fleeing out the door and down the stairs.
“There ya are,” Cody said. “Come on! Jed’s takin’ us someplace even better than this.”
Kid was off on a run. So Lou had accepted Cody’s offer to spend her free hours today in town with him. But if he headed back to the Silver Spurs, like he’d been talking about on the ride out here, she’d haul off and hit him one. She was not going back there. Ever.
“Why don’t we go see if Thompkins’ got anything new in at his store,” Cody suggested.
That was fine with Lou. Not that she was planning on spending any money. She didn’t need anything, so every cent she made went straight into an account at the local bank. In a few months she’d have enough to buy a small place and bring her brother and sister out.
“Why not,” Lou shrugged, dismounting and tying Lightning to the hitching post. “Ain’t like there’s much else ta do ‘round here.”
“Aw, come on, Lou,” Cody urged. “This town’s full of people. There’s lots ta do here we cain’t do back at the station.”
Watching Cody’s roving eye catch on every pretty girl in sight, Lou sighed. “
You mean lots for you to do here,” she muttered to herself. As she’d suspected, Cody was paying so little attention to her he never even noticed. Suddenly a woman exploded out the front door of Thompkins’ General Store, pursued by a blue-clad soldier. Lou stiffened and grabbed Cody’s arm to get his attention.
When Cody saw the look on the soldier’s face he growled low in his throat. “I’ve got him, Lou. Cover me.”
She nodded and reached for her gun, even as Cody rushed in and grabbed the man around the throat, throwing him up against the wall. The other men with the soldier began reaching for their weapons, but Lou already had hers out.
“Don’t try it,” she gritted out cocking her already aimed revolver. Oh, please try it, she begged inside. She so wanted an excuse to shoot the lot of them. Jimmy’d be proud of her for putting her new skills to such good use and there’d be four fewer scumbags left on this earth to bother honest folk. To her disappointment, they backed down.
Even as Cody threatened the soldier he was holding Lou heard several people rushing up behind her. But her eyes never wavered from the men she had in her gunsights.
“Let ‘im go, Cody,” Sam shouted from Lou’s side. This caught her attention and she swung her head around to glance at him. Her gun hand never wavered though. Sam, too, had his pistol out and aimed at the rowdy soldiers. “Come with me, soldier.”
Seeing that Sam had everything in hand, Lou lowered her weapon. Damn! she thought to herself. She had been really hoping to be able to take a shot at at least one of them. Preferably the one Cody’d been lambasting. But any of them would’ve suited just fine.
She glared after them as they followed the Marshal over to the jail. How could Kid’s brother be associated with men like these? It just didn’t make any sense. The Army needed to raise its expectations, she thought.
Walking over to Cody she said quietly, “Come on, let’s go back. I’ve about had it with this trip.”
“Aw, Lou,” he whined. “At least let me check ta see if Thompkins got any new novels in.”
“Alright, but hurry up!” She followed him unhappily into the store.
Jed wasn’t at supper that night. Maybe ‘cause Kid was still out on his run. More likely ‘cause he had to deal with his troublesome troopers, Lou thought. She’d actually rather hoped he’d let them rot in the jail for a day or two.
As they waited for Teaspoon and Hickok, Buck was regaling the others at the table with details of a new game Teaspoon had bought.
“It’s got these clubs and yer supposed ta hit a ball with them.”
“Alright, that don’t sound so odd,” Lou smiled.
“Then, yer s’posed ta run round in circles ta do somethin’ called ‘score’.”
Lou frowned, puzzled.
*That doesn’t sound very smart to me,* Ike signed. *Shouldn’t you just get the ‘score’ if you hit the ball.*
Buck shrugged. “That’s what Teaspoon tol’ us. Oh, and you’ve gotta wear these funny little hats. Made of cotton!”
“Why?” Cody asked.
“Cause the directions said so,” Teaspoon announced walking into the bunkhouse. “What’s fer dinner Emma? Smells good.”
“Take a seat you two, and I’ll start serving,” she smiled.
Teaspoon quickly slid into his chair as Hickok took a seat next to Lou.
“Scoot over,” he muttered.
After Emma said grace, they all dug in.
“Mind yer manners, boys,” she admonished.
A chorus of “Yes, ma’am’s” lifted up around the table. Teaspoon raised his own head from his plate to glance at the boys. Once he finished his last bite, he cleared his throat.
“Don’t make any plans fer tomorra afternoon,” he said. “We’re gonna be playin’ that new game Buck was tellin’ ya ‘bout.”
“What’s it called, Teaspoon?” Lou asked curiously.
“Baseball,” he smiled at her. “It’s all the rage back East.”
The game lived up to Buck’s descriptions, and then some, Lou thought the next afternoon as the game devolved into a free-for-all brawl. Of course, adding Jimmy and Cody to the pot had helped!
She suddenly gasped as someone in the pile grabbed the wrong part of her anatomy. “Watch it!” she growled, shoving her sharp elbow into the nearest solar plexis. She grinned at the satisfying ‘whoof’ that elicited even as she reached over to help pull Kid free of Buck’s grasp. Then let out her own ooof of lost air as Jed landed smack dab on top of her. Kid, now at her side, though upside down, managed to flip Jed off her and over to the other side of the pile of squirming bodies. By now, Lou was laughing so hard she was crying, even as she used elbows and knees to discipline her ‘brothers.’
That evening, at Sunday dinner, Lou found herself laughing at Jed’s stories about a young Kid. It was a carefree, joyful side of Kid she’d never seen, but would love to know better. She loved the playful attitude he took with Jed, even when he was embarrassed by Jed’s stories. Kid’s joy brought a smile to her own face, the kind she usually tried to avoid because it made her look too feminine. But, she couldn’t keep it off her face today.
She watched as Jed moved off to help Emma with the dishes, then leaned over the table, unable to resist asking, “Why didn’t you ever talk about him?”
She could see Teaspoon out of the corner of her eye, watching the exchange curiously. She knew she was taking a risk but was too happy for Kid to worry about it right this minute.
“There wasn’t much about that time I wanted to remember,” Kid said, ready to talk now. Lou gave him a questioning look and he continued. “When Jed showed up, it was like findin’ somethin’ I didn’t know I lost. A part of myself, kind of.”
This was a part of Kid she really liked. She hoped it stayed found. But, when Marshal Cain came through the door, she had a bad feeling things were about to head downhill. He quickly proved her right. He brought news that a Pinkerton Detective who’d wanted to talk to Jed had been found dead.
“Well, I don’t think you oughta leave Sweetwater ‘til I find the killer.”
Jed shook his head with a smile. “I’m afraid I cain’t do that.”
Something about the way Jed was talking raised the hackles on Lou’s neck. Looking over, she saw Kid had lost his happy grin and was studiously examining the apple pie on a plate in front of him.
“Well, whoever shot Foster likely knows about the gold. I mean you and your men could be in danger.”
Lou didn’t miss Kid’s sudden interest in the conversation or his quietly voiced question, “What gold?”
Something was wrong. Things got real frigid between Jed and Sam before Sam left. Lou looked worried as Kid followed him out the door. Something was wrong. Real wrong. So, she wasn’t surprised when Teaspoon came in a short time later and told her to pack up for a special run for Sam.
With a sigh, she quickly changed out of her Sunday best and into her riding clothes, grabbed her bedroll and gun and headed out to the barn where Teaspoon already had Lightning ready.
In no time she was in Sweetwater, accepting the dispatch from Sam.
“Get back here as soon as you can,” he said, emphasizing the urgency of the situation.
Stuffing the dispatch in her pocket, she said, “I hope you’re wrong about this.”
“So do I.”
The words rang in her ears as she took off. The faster she got to Fort Laramie, the faster she’d get back. If the news was bad, it was going to kill Kid. That’s what worried her the most. But there was nothing she could do, other than find out the truth.
Using the Express’ way stations to pick up new mounts, it took Lou just over 24 hours to reach Fort Laramie. Wearily, she pounded into the fort complex, racing past the gate guards, the men on the parade ground and straight to the commandant’s office. She hopped off her mount before it even came to a halt, threw the reins at the hitching post, not worried about tying it up as it was too tired to do anything but stand there and blow heavily.
Moving as fast as her tired legs would take her, she scurried into the office and headed straight for the door to the commandant’s office. His attendant grabbed her arm, pulling her to a halt.
“Hang on there, boy,” he warned. “You don’t just go barging into the Colonel’s office. He’s a busy man.”
“I’ve got a dispatch straight from the Sweetwater Marshal. It’s urgent, about a military gold shipment.”
At her last words the attendant stiffened, then, still grasping her arm, headed straight through the door she’d been making for.
“Sir, news from Sweetwater about the gold shipment,” he announced.
The colonel looked up from his paperwork.
“Well?” he demanded.
The attendant turned to Lou and gestured. She reached into her pocket and pulled out the dispatch to hand it over. The colonel ripped open the envelope and quickly scanned the contents.
Lou’s heart sank at the response.
“Wait right there, boy. I’ll have a response for you to take back straightaway,” the colonel ordered.
“Sir,” she spoke up. “I’ll need a new horse. Mine’s blown from the ride here.”
Even as he was writing, the colonel waved at his attendant. “See to it, Zeke.”
“Yes, Sir!” the attendant said, snapping to attention then disappearing out the door.
A quarter hour later, Lou found herself galloping back out the fort gates. This time mounted on a sturdy Army horse and carrying a much heavier burden.
She rushed into Sam’s office the next day and headed straight for the water bucket. First a drink. Then, she decided to dunk her whole head. Anything to delay telling him her news, to avoid sharing her burden.
“Well?” Sam finally said, unable to wait any longer.
Lou slumped forward, resting her arms on the side of the bucket as she finally raised her eyes to meet the Marshal’s.
“You were right,” was all she said. All she could say. The grief that lay so heavy on her heart meant she didn’t even have to try to lower her voice this time. It was husky all on its own.
Even worse than admitting that Sam was right to Sam, was telling the rest of the boys what she’d found out in Fort Laramie. As soon as her part was done Lou sat down on the top step of Emma’s porch and worried about Kid. She knew what Sam was going to tell them and she already knew what her decision was. She could tell the others were as upset as she was, though Jimmy seemed to be taking it the worst. He kept rubbing his hands over his face as if he could erase the knowledge. She so desperately wanted to reach out to him, but couldn’t. Not in front of Sam.
“What are you gonna tell the Kid?” Cody asked, trying to put on his normal blustery front.
“The truth,” Sam said baldly. He and Lou had already discussed this on the way in from Sweetwater. “I don’t want him caught in this.”
At the sound of approaching hoofbeats, Lou raised her head and looked down the road. “That’s him.”
They all watched quietly as Kid passed off the mochila to the Harper’s Ridge rider. Sam turned back to the riders gathered on the porch. “Are ya with me?”
A moment of heavy silence settled over the group as each pondered the decision. It was the first true test of their loyalty to each other. Would they pass this test? Could they afford to pass it? Finally, Jimmy raised his head and met Sam’s eyes.
“Guess we are.”
“Thanks,” Sam said somberly. “I’ll talk to the Kid.”
Lou knew she couldn’t let him do that. Kid needed to hear this from his family, from her.
“Let me,” she said urgently, before Sam had a chance to move toward where Kid was starting to walk Katy to cool her down. She jumped up off the porch step and raced in Kid’s direction. He looked up and greeted her with a smile.
“Hey!” he started before catching sight of the look on her face.
“It’s bad news, Kid,” she said grabbing ahold of Katy’s reins near the bit.
“What are ya talkin’ ‘bout, Lou?” he asked. She could tell by his tone, he already suspected what was coming.
“Jed ain’t with the Army,” she said, putting it before him with no varnish. “I just got back from Fort Laramie. He’s riding with a group of secessionist outlaws that are trying to steal the Army’s gold, not protect it.”
“No,” Kid started to protest, pulling Katy’s reins free of Lou’s hands. “It can’t be.”
“I spoke to the colonel at Fort Laramie myself, Kid. It’s true.”
Even as she spoke, Kid was looking over toward Sam and the others. He could tell from their expressions everything Lou said was the truth. Without another word, Kid took off, racing Katy out of the station yard. Lou watched him go, worrying over him.
Lou joined the others as they headed to the bunkhouse to grab their weapons. Soon, they were all riding hellbent for leather toward Sweetwater. Upon arrival, Sam began telling them where to go.
“Cody, I want you up on the roof with that rifle of yours. Hickok, you talk this boardwalk here, where you’ve got a good view of the bank. Just kinda… hangout. Lou, you and Buck join Deputy Hanson behind that wagon over there. Ike, you go with Barnett on the other side of the street.”
Even as they took their positions, Jed and his men rode in and entered the bank. Lou’s heart dropped as she watched them. She’d really been hoping this wouldn’t be necessary, that they could just wait for the Army to come clean up its own mess.
“Jed, yer trapped,” Sam called out. “Ya got no chance. Throw out yer guns.”
Unfortunately, Jed and his men didn’t see it that way and the shooting started. Lou was glad of the shooting lessons she’d been taking with Jimmy. Soon, the only one left to run was Jed himself and he was headed toward the barn after Cody shot his horse out from under him.
That’s when Lou saw Kid racing toward the barn.
“Damnit!” she muttered. “When’d he get here!”
“What?” Buck asked. She didn’t answer, just pointed to Kid, disappearing in the barn door after his brother. “Come on!” he shouted.
“Wait,” Jimmy said, coming along side them. “Let’s not all go rushing in the front door. I’ll take that. You and Lou head around the sides. Cover all the exits.”
They nodded and raced off. But, as Lou was reaching her side of the barn, she heard a series of shots and an agonized “No!” in Kid’s distinct voice.
“Aw, to hell with the plan,” she muttered and rushed in the side door with her pistol at the ready. Her raised shooting arm quickly sank to her side as she saw Kid hunched over Jed’s obviously dead body. Jimmy next to him with an agonized look on his face.
The scene was so familiar, Lou could swear she’d been there before. Except this time the roles had been switched up. She could tell by Jimmy’s expressive face he’d been the one to shoot Jed, not Kid. Lou wanted to just swing down on both of them and gather them in her arms. The tears streaming down Kid’s face were tearing her heart out. But all she could do was stand there, covering her own mouth to keep from screaming out in rage and despair. Why? Why couldn’t things ever go well for them? Why did life always have to be such a tragedy?
Kid stood stoically on one side of Lou, Jimmy on the other. The rest of the boys were lined up behind them. They were the only ones there for Jed’s funeral. It was the first funeral they’d all attended as a family. Lou had a sinking feeling it wouldn’t be their last.
“From ashes to ashes and dust to dust,” the preacher finished. Kid stepped forward and dropped a handful of dirt on the coffin. The others followed, except for Buck, Lou noticed, who’d already headed out of the cemetery.
Lou walked away, still flanked by Jimmy and Kid.
“I’m sorry, Kid,” Jimmy said for the hundredth time. “I’m sorry.”
“He knows, Jimmy,” Lou said quietly, reaching out to place a hand on Jimmy’s arm. Kid kept on walking toward Katy. “He knows. But it’ll take him some time. Ya gotta give him that time.”
Jimmy nodded and followed the other boys to their horses and back toward the home station. Lou split off from them short of the house. She turned Lightning instead toward the pond. Somehow, she knew that’s where she’d find Kid.
He was there, sitting on the same bank where they’d fished so happily just a few weeks ago. Swinging off Lightning’s back, Lou walked toward him slowly and sat down next to him. After a moment, Kid spoke.
“I shoulda known, Lou,” he said. “I shoulda known Jed was up to no good. He was always lookin’ fer the short cut.”
Lou looked up then reached out with her hand to stop his words. She shook her head. “Don’t, Kid. Don’t blame yerself for what he done. It ain’t gonna do no one no good.”
“It’s all I kin think ‘bout, Lou.”
“He’s gone, Kid. It’s time ta think about the good things. Leave out all the rest,” she urged. Leaning against his shoulder she added, “Why don’t ya tell me ‘bout the Jed that brought that smile ta yer face all last week. Tell me ‘bout that brother.”
Kid smiled, teary eyed, and wrapped his arm around her, hugging her to him. After a moment he began to speak. “Jed was always such a smooth talker. He could have any woman in the parish he wanted. Hoo boy, did that cause problems sometimes!”
Lou settled in to listen. Her heart fluttered as she looked down at his hand and reached over to lace her fingers with his. He was a good man. Even when things got tough, he stayed true to his beliefs. He was a man she could trust. But, could she trust herself?
Chapter 7: The Decision
Chapter 7: The Decision